Lisa Marks is a celebrity journalist and author who has interviewed most of our best known and best loved film stars, both here and in the States. She talks to us about how she got started in the industry, how the shape of celebrity has changed and the responsibility you carry as a journalist, regardless of the story. She also shares some great celebrity anecdotes along the way.
When did you first realise that you wanted to become a journalist?
Well I always wrote, I was writing from really young. And I think it was in my early teens, because I remember doing my first work experience around 14 at the Leigh Times – which was the smallest little paper that was very local for Leigh-on-Sea – and I really loved it. I also did work experience at the local radio station. I was definitely into pop culture and news and writing, and I just read every paper and magazine that I could get my hands on. And I thought this is really cool, especially reading something like Smash Hits and Just 17, back in the day.
I didn’t consider myself an academic person, but I could write and I was interested. And the other thing, which I probably didn’t think about subconsciously or consciously at the time, is that I was quite shy. I have found that a lot of journalists are quite shy actually. And doing this job is a way of getting out into the world. I then did work experience on the Basildon Evening Echo and ended up working for them.
What sort of training and qualifications do you have?
Brilliant training. We did the NCTJ [National Council for the Training of Journalists]. The Westminster Press owned the Echo and a lot of other newspapers across the country, and they sent me to their course at their headquarters in St Leonards. I was there for six months with all the other trainees, and I was the youngest. Someone on the course was 27 and I remember at the time thinking that was ancient! We did local law and central government and all the different levels that you have to attain your NCTJ proficiency test. It was intense. And after, it’s back on the paper as a cub reporter, as they called us, and I learnt on the job. I passed my proficiency test at just over 19. I was really quite young to be fully fledged. And I loved it.
Do you remember the first story you wrote?
Yes, I do. And I remember the headline which was ‘Pawnbrokers are back in vogue’. That was my first by-line. I remember seeing it in the paper and I was delighted. That was very exciting. But the most exciting was my first splash. A cancer unit here was under threat of closure and there had been a huge campaign to stop it. I happened to be on my first ever late shift, working in the Southend office, in a tiny little grotty room, with a photographer who was on that night. I was going through golden wedding stories, and whatever else the news editor had left me to write up, and the phone rang. It was one of our local MPs and he said, “I just want to let you know that we’ve saved the cancer unit”. And I just went, “Oh, thanks. Right. Great… Do you want to say anything about that?”. I knew this was a big story, one of the biggest that had been brewing for a long time. So I immediately called my news editor at home and I told him, and he said, “Right Lisa, you do this, this and this…”. Of course now it’s in my bones to know what to do, but back then I had this little checklist. Then I also took another story about a man and a dog who’d been saved from a house fire, so I had two by-lines on the front page. And when I walked in the office the next day everyone was jeering and clapping, and saying “You make us look bad!” and I said “It was nothing to do with me, I just happened to be answering the phone!”.
How did you get involved in interviewing celebrities?
Well, I think it was always going that way. As I said, I loved Smash Hits and Just 17, and music and the movies…. So I was probably always going to go more towards a magazine career. I knew I wasn’t a news journalist, they are different beasts. My hat goes off to them. I think they do a really difficult job, and under a lot of pressure, but I knew I wasn’t going to go that way. I had gone from the news desk on the paper to the features desk, and then after that I left to go freelance, which was quite a big leap back in those days. I just was interested in pop music, and all of that stuff. So one day I called the Just 17 offices, and asked if they needed anyone, and they said yes, which was amazing! They said someone had just left – it turned out it was Jane Goldman who left to marry Jonathan Ross – so they needed someone else on the desk. Their offices were in Carnaby Street, which was incredibly exciting. And my first big interview was a guy called Adamski, who’s still a big record producer, and the second was Kylie Minogue, so I started off pretty strong, straight out of the gate.
I then had a chunk of time off due to needing spinal surgery, and when I came back I worked on a teen magazine called Big! which covered tv shows and pop music and was great fun. After that I freelanced for various magazines and then joined TV Quick as a writer, then deputy showbiz editor. After working as commissioning editor for the TV magazine at The Mirror, and ended up at Guardian Media. At that point I decided I needed a change in my life, and they sponsored my visa to go out to The States. I worked for various titles out there – mainly Sunday magazines – and my first interviews were Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Garner.
Do you have a favourite story that you’ve worked on?
Yes, but different ones for different reasons. For the Evening Echo I did a series of interviews about alcoholism. I attended Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Ala-teen meetings. I interviewed people and did a really deep dive into it. And I was really proud of that because it showed me that I could make a bit of a difference, and talk about something that was really important in an interesting way and from a first-person point-of-view. I remember that because it made me think about the power we have with this job – it’s a responsibility. That taught me a really big lesson.
There are so many celebrity ones – which is why I wrote a book about it! Much later in my career, I interviewed Hugh Jackman in Hollywood. It was a Father’s Day interview, and we talked about why he adopted his children. That was really interesting. What interests me is something a bit deeper than what colour lipstick are you’re wearing? If there’s a more authentic personal angle, that’s more interesting to me.
And what about any difficult stories that you’ve worked on?
I remember when I was a trainee reporter there was the ferry disaster. It was 1987 and the MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized just after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, killing 193 passengers and crew. Many of them were British. I covered that. We were sent out to cover our little patches in Hastings and St. Leonard’s and one of the places I would pop in every week was a pub called The Cask. I went in a couple of weeks after it happened and the landlord told me a couple of people were waiting to talk to me. I was stunned. I was really young for a start and thought who wants to talk to me? But they’d lost relatives in the disaster and wanted to talk to me about that. They wanted answers and they wanted somebody to be held accountable. I remember sitting there thinking I couldn’t quite take it in. The pub was launching this fundraiser called Cask Aid and in my complete panic and absolute frenzy of trying to process what these people were telling me – which was a lot for my 18-year-old brain to absorb – I called it Cascade, which was a silly mistake. I was writing it for the journalism school rather than a paper, but I was very shaken. I went back to the training centre and my tutor, who was this hard Yorkshireman, told me to take the rest of the afternoon off, that I’d done a great job and we’d talk about it tomorrow. The next day I wrote up the story about ‘Cascade’ and the local paper ran a factually correct version of it in one of their later editions.
I think that was the point that realised this was a job with great responsibility. It was a big story and a big deal for me. It also taught me to check how to spell things, and to really look at what I was writing. It was a really big lesson to see if you have everything right. And even if it’s emotional, you have to know what you’re talking about. But honestly, I think working on a local paper was the best training you could have, whether you end up in a tech niche or a celebrity niche, or wherever you’re working. You can find yourself in all sorts of situations, talking to real people.
Who’s the most famous person you’ve interviewed?
There was a series of films called Twilight and they were huge with a certain demographic. At that point you really couldn’t interview anyone more famous than Kristen Stewart, Rob Patterson and Taylor Lautner. I remember at one point sitting with Kristen Stewart in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, and there was a guy standing behind me with a gun. The security was really intense, and I remember thinking, I don’t think I could be interviewing anyone more famous at this point. And she was just this normal person and we had a nice chat, and I thought, what a weird goldfish bowl for these people to be living in. They really couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. It was quite frightening. There were fans outside the hotel and lots of fans trying to get in the hotel; they were running around, and they were trying to stop them getting to the right floor. And they’d obviously had death threats, which is why they had this armed security.
I also interviewed Jennifer Aniston. It was a press junket in New York for a film called Horrible Bosses. It was a press conference kind of thing and I was sitting right in front of her, and she answered a couple of my questions. She just looked glowing and golden, and I just wanted to lick her skin because it looked like honey. She smiled at me and I thought we could be best friends, like that silly moment you have, and then you think of course we can’t!
What are you up to now?
I don’t really work full-time as a journalist anymore. When I came back here I ended up working for OK magazine which is a different kind of celebrity. These days I get asked to do a lot of things like award shows. The last thing I did was about the Grammys, and then the coronation. I also work as a travel journalists for a couple of outlets and do a bit of travelling, and for a couple of years I taught magazine production at the University of Gloucester. But mostly I do a lot of copywriting, as journalism really doesn’t pay the way anymore, in terms of earning a living. Especially with something like celebrity. It’s all digital hubs now. Celebrity has changed a lot. Whereas once Jennifer Aniston was the big interview, now you have this whole raft of influencers because of social media, with a lot of celebrity being based around YouTubers and Tik Tok, and that is not my world. So I tend to pick and choose what I do in terms of journalism. Like a lot of my contemporaries, we’ve had to see what else we can do with our skill set. With the copywriting it’s often interviews with thought leaders, and I also do a lot around sustainability which is a completely different area, but I wanted to get into something that I felt had some worth, and also some longevity for me.
What do you think about AI?
I tried it out because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. You could use it for certain things and I can see the merits of parts of it, but what remains is that whether you’re interviewing Jennifer Aniston or the latest influencer, you still have to know what you’re doing. You still have to do your research and ask the good questions. You’ve then got to present it in a compelling way. You need to know the fundamentals if you’re going to tell a good story.
How do you relax?
I go to the gym to keep fit, and I love walking and hanging out with my friends, but I also do improv. I used to do stand-up and improv back in the day, and have found my way back to it fairly recently. I have an improv group where I live and we meet every week. It’s really good fun because, unlike stand-up which is more terrifying, you can only think about what you’re doing in the moment. You can’t really worry about the cost-of-living crisis or the car not starting. So I find it’s like some weird kind of therapy, it takes the weight off my shoulders and relaxes me. And it’s hilarious – I just spend three hours laughing.
What advice would you give to someone facing a person they are nervous of, or star-struck by?
It’s easy to say just remember, they’re a person, but of course they’re a person who’s in a different situation. I would say make sure you’re very prepared – research is your rocket fuel. If you’re well researched, you have a lot of things to draw on.
Even if you’re doing it on Zoom, get there early, sit down and give yourself that extra breath of time, because it helps to not arrive anywhere in a panic. If you can find out a little bit more about somebody, not only will they feel flattered, but they will trust you more, and tell you more, because it’s almost as if you care. A long time ago I interviewed William Shatner on the set of Boston Legal. He had brought a book out, and I read it. A lot of people don’t, they don’t put the time in. But in that book I found something that I connected with. It was a difficult day as he kept being pulled back to set, but when we finally sat down and started talking I brought up this particular thing. He sat back and said, oh, you’ve read the book, and I said yes, and he said, well, in that case…, and then the conversation relaxed and changed.
And at the end of the day, unless you’re dealing with something very serious, use your judgement. It’s not the end of the world if things go wrong, or you stumble a little bit or forget. Everyone is human. I interviewed Adrian Brody – a really great actor. I was told he was quite difficult, and I was the last interview of the day. I was wearing new shoes, which is a big no-no for a press junket because they were killing me by the end of the day. By the time I walked into his suite, I thought I just couldn’t do this interview with my shoes on and I said to him, do you mind if I take my shoes off? And he said, what a good idea, and he took his shoes off as well. We both sat on the opposite ends of a sofa and had this really nice, relaxed chat. So just be yourself. Go in with some good energy, look at the person in the eyes and smile and connect. And enjoy it.
Finally, what’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?
They can email me and I’m also on Twitter. I’m always happy to talk to anyone, and always reply.